“I was the lobbyist for the Department of Community Affairs,” said Bonifay, who holds a master’s degree in planning from Florida State University. “As a planner, I was working on drafting legislation, but the other lobbyists were all primarily men and lawyers. They would always tell me, ‘That’s really nice that you helped draft this, but you need a lawyer to do these things.’ I was having to drag a lawyer around with me, so I said, ‘That can’t be that hard.’ I decided that if I were going to go to law school, I should go ahead and do it.”
Although she earned her law degree to further her lobbying career, her background in planning has translated into a very successful real estate and land use practice. After spending her first year out of law school as a plaintiff’s personal injury attorney in Orlando, Bonifay quickly realized that she wanted to make a switch.
“I was very active in Moot Court when I was at FSU and I thought I wanted to be a trial lawyer,” said Bonifay, who generously supports the law school’s Moot Court Team. “After about six months, I said, ‘I don’t think I want to do this anymore.’ That’s when I got in touch with people who had graduated ahead of me and said, ‘I’m really interested in being in the real estate, land use area and using my planning degree.’ One of them said, ‘I’m with this great firm and they need somebody in Sarasota.’
“I have never regretted for a moment making that switch. This has been a wonderful career for me.”
The 1984 College of Law graduate practiced at several additional firms – including the Law Offices of Cecelia Bonifay – before being recruited by Akerman to lead its land use section in 1996. She primarily represents developers and land owners seeking approvals from the local, state or federal government to implement their development plans.
“I think it’s been a big help that I have the planning background and also that I was in the public sector for a number of years before going into the private sector. When I talk to local governments or elected officials, I really know what it is like to be in their position. It makes you more effective in doing your job and working through issues because most of what we do is trying to work through the local government process to get the client what they want.”
During her 18 years in Akerman’s Orlando office, Bonifay has witnessed many changes for her practice area and also substantial growth of the firm. Because she really enjoys the business side of the law practice, Bonifay has been on the Akerman board for several years, at a time that coincided with the recession. Although it was a difficult time for real estate in general, Akerman adopted a long-term view and focused on developing its talent.
“The recession was horrible, but that helped us hone in on what our core strengths were as a firm and also look for new areas of practice. That is when I really tried to expand land use into sustainable development in terms of how we take advantage of new technology and how developers can include those concepts in their planning of a project. It’s still such an expanding area. We are going to continue to see new technology, better ways to do things, be more energy and water efficient, because we just can’t afford not to.”
As her firm’s national lateral integration partner and also a member of its six-person Executive Committee, Bonifay still helps shape her firm’s strategic direction. Bonifay is also involved in many local civic organizations and is immersed in the national community of land use professionals through the Urban Land Institute.
Bonifay is married to the Honorable Gregory Presnell, of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida. He practiced at Akerman for 33 years before taking the bench, but the couple met well before she joined the firm.
“He was at Akerman and said, ‘We’ll never practice together,’” recalled Bonifay. “I was always the spouse at firm retreats and events, so I knew everybody through Greg. When I went to Maguire, Voorhees and Wells, the Akerman attorneys were all horrified. They said, ‘We thought that if you ever quit what you were doing, you would come to us.’ My husband – he is so straight, that is why he is a good judge – said, ‘I don’t want to be in any way involved in that decision’ and stepped down as the office managing partner.”
When they aren’t at work, the couple can often be found fishing at their second home in Boca Grande. They also recently became involved in endurance car racing.
“My husband took up sports car racing at a late age and he has a team called Level 1 Racing. They are in the ChumpCar series, which is intended for people who want to race but are not going to be at the highest levels of racing. So we have a 1994 Mazda Miata that they have stripped down and redone – it’s a very cool looking car.”
As a member of the team’s pit crew and the logistics person, Bonifay monitors time and keeps statistics during races. Typical races last about 14 hours, but the team’s next race at the end of December is 24 hours. Because that race will be much longer than usual, Bonifay recently was fitted for a fire suit so she can help with more than logistics.
“I was trying on helmets and looking at fire suits and I found my racing gloves because to help on the pit stop, you have to be fully suited.”
Bonifay has always committed herself fully to her clients, to her community and to her profession. The fact that she is so dedicated to her husband’s racing team should come as no surprise.
As printed in the fall 2014 issue of Florida State Law magazine.